AIDS: the Next Generation
Michael Woods was 12-years-old when his mother set her family of five young children down for a serious discussion and revealed to them that she had AIDS.
“I knew about AIDS. People got it and they died. They had big red marks on their faces and you couldn’t touch them, because that’s how you got AIDS.” Convinced he would never be able to hug or kiss his mother again, convinced as well that her death was imminent, Michael suffered deep emotional scars. “I remember that day like no other.”
Indeed the day was unforgettable. Child Protective Services came to take the children to foster care and, just when he needed a family most, Michael and his siblings were separated. They were eventually reunited when his oldest sister turned 18 and brought the family back together again under one roof.
Though he hugged his mother many times between that day long ago and her death in 2010, his scars remain. Today the scars spark urgency in Michael to do what he can to prevent new AIDS cases and to protect any little child from hearing that a parent has HIV. In this way, Michael is living his mother’s legacy of HIV/AIDS advocacy.
Rosemarie Woods moved from the Bronx to Utica in 1998. For the next six years, she was on a mission to spread awareness and promote education on HIV and AIDS throughout the Mohawk Valley. Rosemarie ‘hiked’ in the AIDS Hike for Life and otherwise accepted every invitation to tell her personal story and preach HIV prevention. She rallied to guarantee housing for people living with AIDS and she participated in advertising, including a billboard campaign featuring a photo of her and her son Michael (she with a + sign and he marked as negative). She appeared in an interview on 60 Minutes and on the pages of the Utica Observer Dispatch.
Rosemarie had contracted HIV from a shared needle. Her boyfriend had come back from Vietnam addicted to heroin and Rosemarie soon shared both his addiction and his needles.
Rosemarie had no access to clean syringes back then which could have protected her from HIV, Michael Woods is quick to point out. For that reason he became a Peer Volunteer with ACR Health’s Syringe Exchange Program. Michael often mentions his mom when he engages with the public on street outreach. “If clean needles had been available, my mother wouldn’t have gotten HIV. That’s easy to say now, but back when she told us about how she got AIDS, I was so ashamed.” The national “Just Say No” campaign waged by First Lady Nancy Reagan was in full swing. There was no room for compassion, and no money for treatment. Even so, Michael was humiliated that his mother used heroin. “Now, I know it was an addiction, which is a disease, just like HIV.”
Rosemarie Woods participated in drug trials and took new AIDS medications as they became available, anxious to stay alive for her family and for her work. Her HIV infection stabilized and she had some good quality of life over the years. The little boy who thought his mother was going to die when he was just 12-years-old saw her live until 2010 when she was 58 and he was 33.
Michael finds it hard to believe that New York State is now talking about ending AIDS by 2020 – that’s just three years away. Can we do it? “AIDS is out there,” Michael said, “and though people know how you get it, they still make stupid mistakes. It’s hard for me to believe, after all my family has been through, that they don’t take HIV prevention seriously.”
Come to the 19th Annual AIDS Hike for Life on April 23rd at Hamilton College, and meet Michael. He’ll be there, honoring his mother’s legacy and raising money for HIV prevention programs for youth and emergency client services. Ask him to show you a photo of his mother and he’ll tell you her story.
Have you lost a loved one to AIDS? Share your story with us!